ROACHDALE -- It seems everywhere they turned last year, North Putnam couldn't shake their southern neighbors away from the win column.
Four meetings between North Putnam and South Putnam all ended with the Eagles claiming wins, often in significant settings. Any hope of gaining back the Putnam County title and a sectional championship seems to have to run through their county foes to the south.
With a solid returning group and a powerful JV squad ready to prove their worth on the varsity field, North Putnam is ready to prove that the mistakes from last year's defeats will get them victories this season.
Head coach Chase Hiland steps up from the JV squad to take over for Jim Brothers and has a unique perspective on the varsity team he inherits.
"We were up and down last year. We had some really good games where we played well and we had rough stretches, especially in the middle of the year. We have several quality players; we just couldn't put a full game together at times. We had leads heading into the final innings and would relinquish the lead and not be able to regain it," Hiland said.
"We lost a lot of close games last year, so our record might be a little deceiving at 15-11, but we had the ability to beat the best teams we played. We struggled in late game situations a lot last year and that's something we've stressed, to finish games. We'll see how the girls do this year."
To begin with, Hiland must replace five departures and will look to the undefeated squad members of the JV team of last year to do it.
"We lost our middle infielders, two outfielders and a catcher from last year. We have a lot of sophomores and juniors from the JV squad moving into those positions. Even though they are younger, I think they are extremely athletic. They've been brought up in the game for a long time. They're going to be some of our more important players," Hiland noted.
"A question mark a lot of people have been asking is who's replacing Dakota Malayer at catcher. She was a very good catcher and led our team through every inning and was an all-conference selection. Morgan Robinson will be stepping into that spot and I feel she'll do very well. She's a great hitter, works hard behind the plate and is doing a good job of developing her relationship with Taylor Judy, our No. 1 pitcher," Hiland said.
"We'll fill those spots well. I think we'll surprise a lot of people because we lost five seniors, but I think we'll be a more competitive team this year."
Judy, one of the county's best pitchers, is currently planning on attending the University of Indianapolis to play softball. She is also one of the leaders Hiland is looking for to help guide the young squad.
"I've been impressed with they way she has approached things. She's very workmanlike, excited to play and I think she'll have an improved year from last year.
"Another senior is Lauren Green. Our first baseman, she's a reliable player. She's a good defender and her work ethic is very good. She's also a great teammate to have and was our No. 4 hitter last year and she'll be in a similar spot this year. She has good power, hits the ball well and I think she'll be very good for us as a middle of the order person," Hiland said.
Along with fellow senior Danielle Harbison, the squad brings back junior Kensy Asbell and sophomores Katie Rooker and Katie Welch, along with Robinson. Juniors Bridget Johnson, Laken Pugh, Tari Straziscar, Sophomores Ashlyn Clark, Alyssa Roberts, Cayla Kientz and freshman Bailey Ault round out the squad.
With as many young players as he has, Hiland also needs for some to step up and take on not only new starting roles but leadership roles as well.
"Katie Welch is an incredible athlete you don't see too often. She has great speed, covers ground extremely well, has a great arm, is a good hitter, a strong person and, in my opinion, is arguably the best outfielder in the WCC. I know that's a bold statement but we've told her that she's capable of leading the outfield as a center fielder and making that her space," Hiland said.
"We're looking at Alyssa Roberts to take over for Carlye McGaughey at shortstop. She has an excellent arm, very good range and she's starting to fine-tune the position well. She's working out the kinks and is much more comfortable than she was at the beginning. She's also a very good hitter," Hiland added.
While he was enthused about the potential of his squad, there are still several hurdles to clear before Hiland and the Cougars are ready to tangle with the likes of the rest of the WCC.
"South is a good team and will be a very good team again this year. What we've tried to instill into this team is that they can play with any team. I think a lot of things came down to the mental aspect. I think we got mentally tired sometimes last year in those close games, like against the Eagles," Hiland said.
"We have really, really stressed, whether it be drills or conditioning effort, that a big part of the game of softball is being mentally in shape. We've really preached focus for seven innings. I don't know if we got out of certain habits or eased off in the seventh inning, but we want to make sure this year that we keep our foot on the pedal, if we can," Hiland added.
If the mental aspects can be cleared, an aggressive attitude toward the game is one that Hiland is hoping his team will practice.
"I think we're a little different team this year, we're a little more athletic with more speed, but the big thing this year is that we're trying to change our mindset. Our focus is to be the aggressor, run the bases aggressively, hit aggressively and have the killer instinct," Hiland said.
"We want this team to take it to other teams. The coaching staff is excited but we have to have that belief in the players, and they've responded well. A lot of the players are very active. They're excited when they're at practice."
The mix of veterans and youth will be put to the test right out of the gates against Greencastle, testing the resolve of the new Cougar squad as to whether or not they are contenders for the Putnam County title, the WCC and the sectional.
"I think it's going to be a very interesting year. The early part of the season, because we are young, we'll have to fill our team out. I think everybody is excited for that first match-up against Greencastle. It's always fun to start off with a conference and county opponent to measure yourself and see where you are," Hiland said.
"I think we'll be somewhat of a surprise. We have Taylor and she'll provide some quality innings for us. The players that not a lot of people have seen, the JV players, have worked extremely hard in the off-season to develop athletically. I think that's going to show in the transition into the game and on the field, and we're all looking forward to it."